Heritage buildings

Fire in a heritage building can have devastating consequences. Our guide will help you reduce the risk of fire and help keep yourself, visitors, and your property's heritage value safe.

Each building is unique.  A practical approach is needed in assessing the fire safety requirements in these buildings and creative solutions may be required to resolve some of the more complex fire safety issues.

A street scene of Dunster village. It's a sunny day and a row of houses sits in front of Dunster Castle in the distance.

Six steps for managing fire safety in heritage buildings

1. Complete a fire risk assessment


If people visit, work or stay in your heritage building, you will need to comply with fire safety law. You need to carry out a regular risk assessment and make sure you put in place steps to reduce your risk of fire. 

As the risks in heritage buildings can be complex, we would strongly advise you to consult a qualified fire safety consultant for advice.

Read our guidance on fire risk assessments.

2. Maintain a fire safety handbook 


A fire safety handbook should cover steps you’ll take to prevent a fire and what to do in the event of a fire. If you have people working for you then you should use the fire safety handbook for staff training so everyone is clear on what to do if there’s a fire. 

The handbook should be kept up to date and be accessible to any authorised person who needs to use it. The contents of the handbook will depend on the size and use of the building. 

What to include

  • Fire risk assessment.
  • Fire safety policy.
  • Information for any fire protection systems – including service history, manuals and instructions. This should include details of any upgrades or modifications.
  • Procedures for working with the fire and rescue service.
  • Your business continuity plan.
  • An accurate set of floor plans detailing the floor and general layouts including:
    • fire doors
    • fire alarm devices including call points, detectors (smoke/heat), sounders; marked up with zone plans and device detail
    • smoke ventilation, smoke control systems, fire dampers where applicable
    • emergency lighting
    • fire hydrants, dry risers, fire extinguishers 
    • gas, water and electric shut off points
    • location of hazardous materials, plant rooms and other high-risk rooms
    • building fire compartmentation and appropriate fire resistance (30, 60, 120 minutes) where required
    • details of engineered solutions or systems provided and any constraints or actions required if layouts change.
  • Any improvements, adjustments or the introduction of new equipment for fire safety should be recorded and the handbook should be revised and kept up to date. 

Fire strategy

For more complex buildings, we recommend having a fire strategy document. This should be written by a competent person with experience in fire safety requirements for historic buildings. 

The purpose of the fire strategy is to formalise the base fire safety requirements for the building and it can be used as the basis for developing and preparing the fire risk assessment, fire safety management arrangements and other relevant building strategies such as security strategy. Generally, the overall aim is to keep people safe, but other objectives such as property protection will significantly impact the fire strategy for a historic building. The fire strategy can be used to make sure adequate levels of fire safety management, prevention and protection are adopted.

3. Train your staff


Your risk assessment should identify the type, level and frequency of training required. 

Some of the training you should consider includes:

  • what to do in the event of a fire
  • how the fire safety systems operate
  • familiarisation of the building’s emergency plans
  • salvage plans and the role of staff.

Staff with specific roles or responsibilities may require further training such as:

  • investigating the source of an alarm activation
  • searching the building for occupants
  • liaising with emergency services
  • out of hours procedures.

4. Think about fire in your emergency plan


We recommend that you include fire in your emergency plan. This will help you organise your plan of action in the event of a fire.  

Your plan should be regularly updated and should be seen as a living document. Any time something changes then your plan should be updated. 

Historic England has guidance and templates for writing an emergency response plan for historic buildings. 

Make a salvage plan

You should have a detailed salvage plan so you know what the priority items are in the event of a fire. This will help firefighters prioritise items to salvage from the building. If it is safe to enter the building we will try and salvage items but this may not always be possible. 

As part of your salvage plan, you should consider the impact of firefighting activities on your property e.g. damage from water or the impact of smoke and fire. 

5. Understand the causes of fire


The key to reducing loss in buildings is gaining an understanding of the most common causes of fire and how to prevent them.  

Common causes of fire include:

  • building work
  • electrical faults –defective wiring or faulty appliances
  • sparks from open fires, stoves, grates and hearths
  • defective flues can lead to chimney fires
  • lightning strikes
  • candles
  • lighting
  • rodents chewing through cables
  • arson.

You should consider these risks when developing your fire risk assessment and fire strategy. Ensure that if anything changes, for example, during building work, you include this in your risk assessment and associated documents. 

6. Reduce the fire risks 


Some of the measures detailed below will help you to lower the risk of fire. These should be considered as part of your risk assessment. We would strongly advise getting a competent person to help you with your risk assessment and assessing different aspects of your building.

Fire doors


Fire doors can greatly reduce the spread of fire. It is not always possible to install new fire doors in historic buildings.

We would recommend you have an assessment carried out by a competent person on the existing historic doors to ensure they will restrict the spread of fire. Solid doors that fit well in their frames may be acceptable. Doors must not be wedged open.

It may be possible to upgrade an existing historic door, this should only be considered following an assessment by a competent person.

Hidden voids


Fire can spread through voids and spread from one compartment to another.  It can be difficult to determine voids' location, particularly when the building has undergone previous alterations and changes. Historic plans may assist where these are available.  

If you have a complex building, we would recommend having a detailed survey to help determine the lines of compartmentation within the building. The compartment strategy for the building will need to take account of any hidden voids.

Lighting and electricals


The electrical installation and lighting system should be assessed by a competent person to ensure it remains safe. Consideration should be given to using low voltage or LED lighting.  

A thermographic inspection may also help to identify any areas with excessive temperatures which will help identify faults. We recommend that this is carried out by a competent person.

Hot works


Hot works include any works using open flames or creating sparks or heat. Where possible, this type of work should be avoided as the risk of fire is increased.  

Where hot works are required, you should appoint competent contractors, identify the risk and take appropriate precautions. You may also need to notify your insurance company. Historic England have more guidance on hot works on their website.

Automatic fire suppression systems (AFSS)


AFSS include wet sprinklers, water mist and gas suppression systems.  They can be used to compensate for limitations in historic buildings where rare or high-value items cannot be moved and need to be protected in-situ.

Establish procedures


You can lower the risk of fire by putting in place procedures to make sure:

  • you have good levels of housekeeping and management of storage areas
  • naked flames are strictly controlled or banned completely
  • portable electrical appliances are tested and maintained
  • electrical and gas services are shut down when the building is unoccupied
  • extractors, grease traps and filters are regularly cleaned and maintained
  • building work is well managed 
  • bins and waste materials are stored away from the building in secure areas.

Speak to our Heritage team 

We want to help make sure your historic building and its contents are as safe as possible from fire. If you need any guidance or support please contact us by emailing firesafetyhelpdesk@dsfire.gov.uk or phoning 01392 872567 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm).